In Italy, football has always mirrored life. It is a country split in two; the wealthy northern part of the country lording it over their poorer relations in the south. That disparity in wealth and success has traditionally been replicated in Serie A, where the giants of the north (Juventus, Milan, Inter) have dominated. For a brief juncture in the 1980s though, one man changed all that. Diego Armando Maradona.
Maradona inspired Napoli and was largely responsible for the only two Scudetti in their history. Their last title was secured in 1990 and they’ve endured turmoil and scant reward since, but ahead of the new Serie A season, hopes is as renewed as ever.
2016/17 was a hugely successful campaign for the Neapolitans, but also one tinged with regret. Despite losing their leading marksman Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus, they scored a division high of 94 goals, achieved a club record haul of 86 points and pushed for a top two finish. In the end, they were five points short of Juventus and got pipped by Roma for second spot on the final day of the season.
Napoli’s downfall can essentially occurred in October, when Higuain’s replacement Arek Milik ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. Milik hit the ground running before his injury, netting eight times in his first twelve appearances. Stripped of the Polish striker just as he was settling in, Napoli initially struggled with three of their four league defeats suffered in those tumultuous few weeks.
Sarri eventually settled on a solution, converting Dries Mertens from an inconsistent wide player into a devastating forward. The diminutive Dutchman was a sensation, scoring 28 times in the league and finally establishing himself as an undroppable first team regular. Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Marek Hamsik also went well past double figures in the goal column.
Happily, the club have tied Mertens down to a new contract and kept all of their other star performers. In a similar vein to Tottenham, they’ve conducted minimal transfer activity. But like the Premier League side, continuity is more important than wholesale change right now. There was little wrong with their team for much of last season, so the trick is to carry on from where they left off in May.
Much of the Napoli progression is down to Sarri, who recently agreed a three year extension to his deal. Sarri was a surprise choice to succeed Rafa Benitez, but almost immediately improved every aspect of the team. Benitez objectively underachieved in Naples even though he won two trophies. The style of football was uninspiring and they finished in fifth in Serie A. Sarri has transformed them into one of Europe’s most enterprising and entertaining teams. Napoli play beautifully vibrant and intricate football, and judging by their pre-season, they will continue to rip most opponents apart.
If Napoli are serious about a Scudetto tilt, one area that Sarri must rectify is his defence. They conceded 12 more goals than Juventus despite outscoring the Old Lady. Perhaps that’s the price they must pay for their expansive tactics, but if they can tighten their rearguard even marginally, it could prove decisive. The old cliche that ‘defences win championships’ hasn’t always applied elsewhere, but it certainly does in Italy. The last ten champions have presided over the best defensive record, as Sarri will be keenly aware.
In contrast to the relative serenity in Naples, there has been upheaval elsewhere. Juventus – seeking a seventh title in a row – lost talisman Leonardo Bonucci to newly cash rich Milan in a deal that suggests the balance of power in Italian football is shifting slightly. Alongside Bonucci, they’ve brought in Andre Silva (Porto), Andrea Conti (Atlanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen), Mateo Mussacchio (Villarreal), Lucas Biglia (Lazio), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg) and Franck Kessie (Atlanta) in an eye catching summer splurge. In the doldrums for years, the Rossoneri should mount a challenge.
Rivals Internazionale invested heavily a year ago to little reward, but in hiring ex-Roma boss Luciano Spalletti, they’ve eventually found a coach to match the calibre of their squad. With Serie A regaining the fourth Champions League place they lost in 2011, both Milan clubs should be expected to make a concerted effort to return to Europe’s leading competition.
At the Stadio Olimpico, there’s less certainty. After new sporting director Monchi brazenly declared that Roma wasn’t a ‘supermarket’, they subsequently sold Mohammed Salah to Liverpool, Antonio Rudiger to Chelsea and Paredes to Zenit St Petersburg as well as singing the woefully declining Aleksander Kolerov – a move that has infuriated supporters given his previous allegiance with rivals Lazio. The loss of Salah is particularly worrying. The Egyptian contributed double figures in goals and assists, and struck up a brilliant relationship with Edin Dzeko. Now led by former player and highly touted coach Eusebio Di Francesco, this season is likely to be one of transition in the first year of a post-Totti era.